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Only 4 in 14 PHVs and hotels recognised warning signs of child sexual exploitation ‘test purchases’

Updated: Dec 18, 2023

Advice has been given after only four out of 14 hotels and private hire vehicles tested in a recent undercover operation to identify risks around child sexual exploitation alerted police with their concerns.   

The operation saw officers from Leeds District Safeguarding’s Child Vulnerability and Exploitation Team working with neighbourhood policing team colleagues in west and south Leeds along with staff from Leeds City Council Taxi and Private Hire Licensing to run a ‘test purchase’ style operation to test the level of training and awareness in the hotel and private hire economies.   

While the initiative identified some examples of good practice where deliberate suspicious behaviour was reported to the police, the majority of results showed that increased awareness and training was needed.   

A female officer, with the visible appearance of a girl aged under 18, and an older male colleague played the roles of a victim with a child sexual exploitation offender during the operation.   

Working to a carefully devised script, they engaged in ‘red flag’ behaviour while trying to book hotel rooms or while on private hire journeys.   

This included overt conversations about having condoms, lying about being over 18, agreeing not to tell parents where they were, reminding them about gifts bought and referring to buying alcohol.   

Other suspicious behaviour included asking to pay for rooms in cash or without identification and discussing being turned away from other hotels.   

Over the course of a full day, they visited seven local hotels and took seven private hire car journeys in between. Only two of seven taxi companies raised concerns about their behaviour and alerted police, and only two of the seven hotels responded in the same way.   

The private hire drivers involved had also been subject to ‘routine’ checks by uniformed police officers and licensing staff shortly after the test journey to give them a further opportunity to raise any concerns about the suspicious behaviour of their passengers.   

Follow-up work is now being carried out around further training, including night-time economy active bystander training, to bolster existing CSE awareness activity in the hotel and private hire trade following the operation.   

Detective Superintendent Heather Whoriskey, Head of Crime and Safeguarding for Leeds District, said: “Tackling child sexual exploitation remains a key focus of our work to reduce violence against women and girls.   

“Those working in the hotel and private hire economies have a vital role to play in identifying suspicious behaviour and helping us to protect children from sexual exploitation.   

“The more we can do to improve people’s awareness and vigilance around the signs to look out for, the more we can reduce the opportunities for children to be victimised in this way.   

“We are not looking to catch people out when we carry out this type of operation, our aim is to identify where the risks are so we can improve how we work together to prevent, deter and disrupt this type of offending.   

“The suspicious behaviour demonstrated by the officers during this operation was based on real-life scenarios and was done in such an overt way that it should have raised significant concerns with those who witnessed it.   

“We are keen to work constructively to support local businesses around this issue and have given suitable advice and will be continuing to offer awareness training for staff in these areas.   

“We will be carrying out further operations of this kind alongside other work to improve awareness and protect young people from exploitation and abuse.” 


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